CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe DePriest/The Charlotte Observer) - From his mansion atop 850-foot Cramer Mountain, mill owner Stuart Warren Cramer Sr. could look down at the village named for him along the South Fork River in eastern Gaston County.
Maymont, the 37-room English manor built in 1917, was Cramer's summer home. His main residence was a rambling Victorian house on Charlotte's East Morehead Street.
Cramer was recognized nationally for his versatility in the all-important textile industry and for a vision that helped shape the Charlotte region. Internationally known for designing textile mills, Cramer produced Highland Park No. 3 in the NoDa district of Charlotte (now Highland Mills Lofts at 2901 N. Davidson St.) and the Mayes Manufacturing plant in what would become the town of Cramerton.
An upcoming Cramerton Centennial Celebration will pull together the threads of a rich chapter in both local and North Carolina textile history.
Cramer was also a prolific inventor with more than 60 patents. His humidification system for textile mills – known as air conditioning – not only improved spinning conditions for cotton spinning plants but for a more comfortable environment for workers. During World War II, Cramerton Mills produced "Army khaki" worn by millions of soldiers.
"We stand on the shoulders of all who came before us," said Cramerton Mayor Ronnie Worley, 50. "We're proud of what they accomplished."
Birth of Cramerton
First called Mayworth after Stuart Cramer's friend and next door neighbor in Charlotte, mill owner J.H. Mayes, the South Fork River town blossomed after Cramer took over Mayes' company and became president in 1915.
Cramer had a vision for a model mill village unlike any in the region. Around his two textile plants, which employed 3,000, he constructed employee houses with modern conveniences not found in all mill villages.
He built concrete sidewalks, churches, a school, a recreation center, swimming pool, golf course and baseball fields. A company-run dairy farm provided fresh milk and eggs to employees, and an orchard furnished fresh fruit.
Not everyone would agree that Cramerton was the ideal place for workers to live during the town's textile heydays under the Cramers. Throughout the South, conditions in many mill villages were poor.
Company-owned houses rented by mill employees, in some cases, lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. Employees felt their lives were controlled by mill owners.
Still, a 1928 special business section of The Charlotte Observer had a full-page spread on Cramerton Mills Inc. and Cramerton, extolling the company's products, its employees, and the town's churches, school and recreational facilities. The message for folks seeking employment at Cramerton Mills: If you're a slacker, go elsewhere.
Cramer died in 1940 at 73 and is buried in Charlotte's Elmwood Cemetery. Stuart Cramer Jr., had already taken over the company reins. Cramerton Mills Inc. was sold to Burlington Industries in 1946.
After the sale, the town of Cramerton went into a gradual decline. A concrete foundation at the foot of Cramer Mountain was all that remained of the boathouse Stuart Cramer Sr., a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, built for the 30-foot cabin cruiser he sailed on the South Fork River. The mill is gone, and the office building was transformed into the Cramerton Town Hall.
For years, Maymont sat empty on the mountain top, with few remembering the famous visitors who'd stopped there: tobacco/electric power magnate James Buchanan Duke; former Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower; and Gen. George Patton Jr., who, the story goes, would step outside at night to converse with an owl.
In the late 1980s, the town – located 16 miles west of uptown Charlotte near U.S. 74 – felt a resurgence with the arrival of an upscale residential development on Cramer Mountain. The comeback has continued with a revitalized downtown, new restaurants, housing developments and the Goat Island public park on the South Fork River. The sprawling new Stuart W. Cramer High School is also generating energy.
The town will celebrate its history at a centennial celebration Oct. 16-18. Officials have reached out to members of the Cramer family who are scattered around the county.
From myth to reality
Centennial Chairman Jeff Ramsey, 53, recalls that when he was growing up, the Cramers were almost mythic figures.
Stories about them were passed down through generations. After several Cramer family members attended the opening of the new school in 2013, Ramsey said town officials and the Cramers started getting to know one another better. Family members have been invited to the centennial.
"I think the Cramer family is enjoying finding out about their heritage and where they came from," said Ramsey. "We want to take them out of myth and make them a reality."
He hopes the centennial will be the catalyst for a local history museum. Currently, artifacts are stored in the town hall. Many will be on display at the celebration, including the khaki uniforms, (the fabric name was registered and reintroduced by Dockers as "Cramerton khaki"); and one of the Tommy guns guards carried in the 1920s to protect the mill payroll.
Ted Reece, 87, is lining up the artifacts for the centennial, and they are reminders of how much his hometown has changed over the years. For him, they're symbols of a way of life experienced by his family and many others.
In 1922, his father, I.T. Reece, had to leave the family farm in York County, S.C., after boll weevils destroyed the cotton crop. He came to Cramerton and got a job in the mill where his brother worked. The following year, I.T. Reece moved his wife and seven children to town in a horse-drawn wagon.
"It was a close-knit community," said Ted Reece, who would work 36 years in the mills. "Everybody was friendly and looked out for each other. The Cramers paid a little bit more, and conditions were better. Cramerton was far ahead of most other cotton mill villages at that time."
Reece can almost hear mill whistles announcing the change of shifts and see sidewalks crowded with people all over town. He recalls in pretelevision days how the whole town turned out to cheer the home team in baseball games.
"It was a great town back then," Reece said. "And it's a great town now."
Joe Depriest, a former Observer reporter, wrote a history of the Cramer family and the mills for the town of Cramerton.
WANT TO GO?
The Cramerton Centennial Celebration is Oct. 16-18. Registration for the centennial golf tournament at the Cramer Mountain Club begins 8:30 a.m. Oct. 16. Events during the celebration include a Historical Timeline Exhibit at the C.B. Huss Sports Complex; a fall carnival and live music downtown and a fireworks display.
On Oct. 17, the original play about Cramerton, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," will be presented by fine arts students at Stuart W. Cramer High School. Also, there will be a re-enactment of the squad dance a team from Cramerton Mills performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955.